“Sweet makes you dizzy, bitter makes you healthy” – on culinary customs of Southeast Asia

Although it’s not a big subject on the blog, our travels are also a search for answers on how to eat to stay healthy. At home, I expand my nutrition knowledge and during travels I peek into the plates and customs of local people. I do so to find out what do the communities living close to nature and honoring culinary traditions eat to stay strong and healthy. While at home,  I also ask older people what used to be eaten in the past, what not and why. How did people cook and combine the ingredients. You may probably guess that the culinary traditions don’t have too much in common with the modern diets. Nevertheless, before the scientists started researching our plates, people used mostly their intuition and the gift of observation. With good effects, too! Meanwhile we, for vague reasons, treat those traditions as relics or mistakes highlighted by the modern science, something to be protected from.

Especially now, when the so called healthy diet starts to be associated only with subtraction, stress and threats. Eat red meat and you will get cancer, eat butter and you will die of heart disease, drink sodas and you will end up with diabetes. There are also the -free diets (gluten-free, wheat-free, meat-free, diary-free, salt-free, sugar-free, saturated fat-free, etc. – cross out as appropriate). We shouldn’t rely only on scientific proof or quit yet another food group but also can take a dive into the past and the world around us. I have no doubt that some food items can cause harm to some people — I am one of them. But I do believe that throwing food out of a diet, one type after another, can’t be the only solution. We need to think in broader terms, putting emphasis on the causes. Is it the declining quality of the produce, our current lifestyles, the way we prepare the dishes or if we prepare them at all, how we combine foods and in what proportions, etc.

There is a saying in Lao: “sweet makes you dizzy, bitter makes you healthy”. Laotian cuisine is not backed up by the science but the people know very well what is good for them. It can even be sugar, which used as a “spice” can balance other tastes in a value meal. This is an article on what we think are valuable habits and practices of the nations of Southeast Asia (mainly Vietnam and Laos which were the culinary highlights for us). We took a sneak peak into their kitchens and culinary customs and took out what we think is important (not sure if they would tell us the same). So here it goes:

preparing the meal together
preparing the meal together

CELEBRATION

This is the most striking for me. Whole families helping themselves from the communal bowls, comfortably sat on bamboo mats or by the table. At home and in the restaurant, in the storefronts and guesthouses, at the markets. Workers detached from other problems on a lunch break. Friends on a picnic. Nobody rushing anyone, people joking and laughing and eating with pleasure. Obviously, under stress the digestive system shuts down and the metabolism slows down. They seem to be aware of that.

dinner for two on china in a closed restaurant
dinner for two on china in a closed restaurant

 

THREE SQUARE MEALS

Local people eat what they want, and that just happens to be a hearty soup for breakfast or a fully-balanced lunch with favorite protein, vegetables, herbs and of course rice. Between meals fruit and sweet coffee. Not much need or space left for junk snacking.

Lunch break at work. I love Asians because they like to sit the same way I do!
Lunch break at work. I love Asians because they like to sit the same way I do!

EATING ALL PARTS OF THE ANIMAL

Asians love meat, or any part of the animal for that matter. Something that disgusts many of us. Soups based on huge bones. Offal, trotters, chicken feet, melted fat and crunchy skin. Blood and bile. Nothing gets wasted. It’s not only frugality but also a healthier choice. Offal is one of the most nutritious food groups. Muscle meats, which the western world mostly consumes, when eaten in large amounts have a pro-inflammatory effect. It can be balanced by the addition of elements with a different aminoacid profile. For example with the anti-inflammatory and joint-building collagen, which we can find in the bone broth or the skin. The Chinese also know what they’re doing, munching on  those chicken feet…

meat, blood and bile
meat, blood and bile

Laos meat on the market

BALANCE

Every meal is a symphony of the five flavors, raw and cooked ingredients, the crunchy and the melting, dry and wet, light and heavy. Mastery of taste. Balancing the hard to digest foods with those that support digestion. Getting vitamins, antioxidants and fiber from fresh foods together with the good assimilation of minerals from cooked ones. Balancing the cooling ingredients with those that make you warm, ones that are moisturizing with others that dry the lungs and ease expectoration, etc.

five flavors in a salad
five flavors in a salad

 

MEETING INDIVIDUAL NEEDS

Plenty of possibilities to adjust the dish according to your taste. After all, each of us has different needs and limitations. The starting point can be a soup of which final taste depends on the ingredients chosen by the eaters at the table. A salad which you can taste before serving and have it seasoned your way. A do-it-yourself barbecue where you grill your favorite morsels and combine them with an appropriate amount of greens and sauces. I believe a recipe should only be a starting point and a suggestion which we modify according to our needs. Indeed, taste is one of the ways of the body telling us what it needs!

some like it green
some like it green

USE OF LOCAL PRODUCE

The cuisine changes with the regions and availability of fresh produce. The south of Vietnam, for example, is in part culinary different from the north. At home we are used to being able to buy whatever we fancy. Meanwhile, the delicious banana cake or the ice-cold sugarcane juice from the South are hard to find in Hanoi. Rightly so, because what can be a cure in one climate, can make us weaker in another.

Vietnam greens on the market-2

FRESHNESS

This is most visible in Vietnam and I have already mentioned that earlier. Each and every client of the street stall will get the dish prepared freshly for him or her. It is not common to cook in advance and reheat, put the half-finished products into jars or freeze for later. The pastes do not come out of a package. Vegetables, fruit and herbs look as they were just picked and that’s also how they taste. Be it at home or at a street stall, the food is made from scratch and does not come from a factory.

Malaysia leaves and herbs on the market

Vietnam greens on the market

Vietnam market vegetable bonanza-2

DIGESTIBILITY

For some foods to be healthy and easily digestible we need to prepare and combine them correctly. In Asia, it is not a uncommon to soak the rice for many hours before cooking (which happens to improve its digestibility), serve meat dishes with a small bowl of broth for digestion, add ox bile to tenderize meaty laap salad or use digestion enhancing combinations of bitters, herbs and spices.

clams with herbs and bitter vegetables
clams with herbs and bitter vegetables

FORAGED FOODS

There still are places in Asia where they grow plants and rear animals using traditional methods, or even hunt and gather. Especially visible in Vietnam (plant-wise) and in Laos (meat-wise). Controversial for us, especially when the endangered species of animals are involved. The variety of herbs and leaves served with every dish in Vietnam is really fascinating though. Some of them are still picked in the surrounding area. They have much more aroma and nutritional value than plants grown on chemically fertilized soil or substrate. The same can be said about animals fed with industrial feeds.

greens at a laotian market
greens at a laotian market

 

free range everywhere
free range everywhere

Obviously, Southeast Asia is no different from the rest of the world in that the culinary traditions slowly give way to industrial farming, fast-food joints, and imported goods. Lifestyles are changing in every way and the people are getting fatter. It striked us the most in the richer Thailand, where you can find 7elevens with cheap “lunches” on almost every corner. In this region though, there still are many possibilities to take a look at old customs and combine some of them with the current knowledge. The same observations can be performed at home, though sometimes it’s easier to change the perspective and looking from the outside see that some “truths” we take for granted apply to our backyards only and are not universal. We can even reach a conclusion that the trendy, healthy diets of the modern world are not necessarily always good for us and that using them can sometimes offset our invaluable instincts. Why not combine the new with the old?

Pulau Pangkor burger stall

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